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The first time I ever encountered pesto was back in high school, during choir rehearsal. We had been preparing for our holiday concert all day and we were allowed a brief dinner break before our warm-up. Victoria Robinson (who possessed a pretty sophisticated palate for her age, in retrospect) was eating this weird looking green paste out of a Tupperware container. She said it was called pesto and that she had made it herself. She offered me a taste, saying it was really good, and I declined, in a manner that I can only pray could be described as polite, despite my deep panic that I would not be able to get away without tasting it.

At the time, I had an overwhelming fear of tasting something and disliking it. While I’d downgrade my fear to a reluctance these days, when I was sixteen, it verged on a legitimate phobia. Coupled with my strong then-aversion anything green, there was no way I was going to taste that stuff. It’s really a shame, because I had no clue what I was missing.

Today, I love pesto. There’s something about the fruity olive oil, zesty garlic, and almost ginger-y basil, so simple, yet so close to culinary perfection. I don’t get to eat it often, but, each time I do, I wonder aloud why I don’t do it more often. Pesto really couldn’t be easier to make. It comes together in a matter of minutes and doesn’t even need to be heated–it’s every bit as delicious straight out of the blender and cold. 

The other great thing about pesto is that it is easily adjusted to your unique tastes. I kept the cheese at a minimum, for example, and left out the traditional pine nuts (you can also use walnuts). I also made my pesto excessively garlicky–and when I say excessively, I really and truly mean it. If you aren’t absolutely obsessed with garlic–like live and breathe for it and can eat it pretty much raw–I would strongly advise you to cut back by one clove. I thought I had ruined the pesto when I tasted it for seasoning, but it was spicy perfection when combined with the pasta, nothing a true garlic enthusiast couldn’t handle.

The gnocchi isn’t quite as easy as the pesto, but it’s not as scary as people make it out to be. If you can bake pastry, you can make gnocchi. It takes a while to get a feel for gnocchi making, but, once you do, it’s a piece of cake. I managed to get the pesto, the pasta, and the salad made in under an hour–not too steep a price for an impressive meal made entirely from scratch. The tomato and mozzarella salad (also know as “tomatoes and mootz” around here) showcases some great seasonal flavors  and couldn’t be easier. Add some hearty bread (like this beautiful organic wheat loaf I got from Amy’s Bread this afternoon) and you have a great summer-y meal that’s sure to please your inner Italian. 

Cute little gnocchi pillows waiting to be boiled

Homemade Potato Gnocchi

  • 2 medium sized russet potatoes
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 C all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  1. Clean, dry, and perforate potatoes. Microwave approximately 8 minutes, or until potatoes are cooked through and insides are fork-tender. Slit, set aside, and let cool. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil.
  2. When potatoes are cool enough to handle, scoop the insides into a medium bowl, careful to remove any errant bits of skin. Add egg, salt, and pepper and mix until combined.
  3. Stir in half the flour, adding more if needed. When mixture comes together into a soft dough, empty contents of bowl onto a well-floured surface. Knead until dough feels smooth, pliable, and has lost most of its stickiness, adding as much flour as needed to achieve desired consistency. Depending on the weather and the potatoes, you may not need the full cup or you may need more.
  4. Separate dough into 4 equal parts and dust work surface with more flour. Working with one lump at a time, use your fingertips to roll the dough into long, even snakes, approximately half an inch in diameter. Cut each snake into 1 inch pieces and set aside. You may also choose to shape gnocchi on a gnocchi board or the tines of a fork, but the little pillow shapes are infinitely easier.
  5. Add your cut gnocchi to the pot of water. When the gnocchi are cooked, they will rise right to the surface. Remove them with a spider or slotted spoon. Do not worry about getting them bone dry, as the starchy pasta water will heat your sauce and help it adhere to the gnocchi. Toss with butter or desired sauce and enjoy.

(Total cook and prep time: approximately 40 minutes. Serves 4)

Basil Pesto Sauce

  • 1 1/2 C fresh basil leaves, firmly packed
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons pecorino romano cheese
  • 1/2-3/4 C extra virgin olive oil
  • pinch of kosher salt
  1. Combine basil, garlic, cheese, salt, and 1/4 C oil in blender or food processor. Pulse to combine. (A note about garlic: for more consistent flavor, roughly chop or grate garlic on a rasp grater before adding to blender or food processor)
  2. Remove lid and evaluate consistency. If you prefer a thicker consistency, add remaining 1/4 C of oil and pulse to combine. If you prefer a thinner sauce, add more oil as desired. Sauce, when finished, should be smooth and even textured.

(Total time: 15 minutes. Should be enough for a pound of pasta–a little bit goes a long way)

 

Tomato and Mozzarella Salad

  • 3-4 ripe Roma tomatoes
  • 1/2-1 whole ball of fresh mozzarella
  • Handful of fresh basil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  1. Slice tomatoes into quarter-inch slices and arrange on serving platter.
  2. Slice mozzarella into similar sized and shaped pieces and place on top of tomatoes.
  3. Sprinkle with fresh basil, cut or torn into relatively small pieces, salt, and pepper.
  4. Drizzle with olive oil and, if desired, balsamic vinegar.

(Total time: 10 minutes. Serves: 4-6)

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